Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Truths

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The memoir is a concentrated slice of an autobiography.

Negative (white) space can be a positive thing.

You can be a reader without being a writer, but you can’t be a writer without being a reader.

Real life doesn’t have to make sense. Fiction does.

Every character has a story, but some are better told in a poem, a short story, a novel, etc.

Writers are some of the smartest people I know, for what they don’t know, they research.

Write what you want, then edit out what you don’t want.

If your tweets aren’t entertaining, people will assume your book isn’t either.

Every time you submit a piece that’s been rejected, review it. It will improve each time.

Literature is the prevention, journalism, the cure.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Tips

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There is no excuse for writer’s block. If you’re stuck on one project, work on another.

If you find a word in a thesaurus, look the word up in the dictionary to ensure it means what you want it to mean.

Keep everything you write. I used certain lines from an essay outline to write a poem on short notice for a contest.

People aren’t always what they seem. Multilayered characters that keep you guessing are the most interesting but don’t use the first chapter as an information dump.

If it seems like you have too much dialogue or narration in your short story, it helps to create a visual: I highlight all the dialogue/narration in mine and look at my story from a multi-page view. This helps me know where to break up the narration with a scene.

Avoid phrases like “he jumped in the shower” or “she hopped in the car.” People don’t jump in showers or hop in cars. Use “he got in/she got in.” The former is hyperbole and doesn’t read well.

Never use cliches. If a character in your story is prone to them, put a new twist on an old phrase to freshen it up (unless you’re writing about a real person). If you can make the cliche humorous, even better.

Make your title memorable, but don’t use too many complicated or unusual names in a story. It comes off as amateurish.

If you’re going to emphasize a seemingly insignificant detail at the beginning of your story, that detail should play a role in the end.

If you use a semicolon to separate two sentences, ensure the sentences relate to each other in some way.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Journaling and Chapbooking

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Lists are a great way to spark creativity. They provide a framework you can fill in with details and make yours. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/03/07/the-seven-wonders-of-hannah-an-exercise-in-non-rhyming-poetry/

Metadata matters. Take time to appropriately label your work and categorize it for easier lookup, and go through your flash drive once or twice a year to clean house. Have a corpus file, where you put deleted scenes that don’t work in the work it was intended for but which might work as something else.

Journaling isn’t just about the product but the process. If you focus too much on the product, you’re editing, not writing. 

Keep several notebooks or journals handy—on your nightstand, in your purse, car, etc. Inspiration often comes when you’re unprepared. It’s also easier to keep up with several books rather than trying to remember to always carry the same one around with you. 

Have a theme journal. Joe Brainerd did an “I remember . . . ” theme. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/joe-brainard-i-remember. I am doing a “That extra moment . . . ” book for my daughter. Other ideas would be “What if?” (my favorite poetry subject), “If only”, and “Because.”

Freewriting is when creativity flows the best, as you are pouring out your subconscious on the page. Sometimes it’s hard to stare at a blank page or computer screen; some websites will give you a prompt to get you started. Some of my best poetry can trace its roots back to a prompt. 

Live to live, not just to record. Never let the magic of the moment be lost because you were too busy writing it all down.

Creating chapbooks for poems and anthologies for short stories help me organize my smaller works into more manageable forms.

Short-term memory holds a thought for about a minute (or less), so keep a scratchpad in every room in the house, in your purse or pocket, next to your work desk, in the glove compartment of your car, etc. Text yourself if you have to. I write over 100 poems a year and could not do this if I didn’t jot something down as soon as it came to me.

When you write from life, you become a data miner. I save emails, newsletters, photos of random things, fliers, quotes, links, obituaries/newspaper clippings, and even job descriptions. This piece, for example, was inspired by some of the event fliers I saw posted on bulletin boards around campus. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/04/14/poem-a-day-april-2018-writers-digest-challenge-14-theme-report/

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Prompts

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Hybrid writing is great because it takes a form that is typically boring and reimagines it. I have written a Christmas letter, an obituary, and even a prescription. These exercises are not only fun, but they will also help you remember and get a feel for the forms.

A type of newspaper feature, when spoofed, can be as fake news as you want. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/07/18/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-445-special-day/

Take a well-known list and expand upon it in such a way that it becomes yours. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/08/05/book-review-all-i-really-need-to-know-i-learned-in-kindergarten/

If you’re stuck, use a prefab format. It will take you places you would never otherwise go. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/05/01/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-30-theme-bury-the-blank/

Neil Pasricha of “1000 Awesome Things” made a career out of a listicle. Make a list, check it twice, and you might surprise yourself. For example, each entry could lead to a poem or chapter headings of a personal essay anthology. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/06/09/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-353-theme-nothing-important/

A hybrid form of found poetry is to create something out of what most consider trash. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/12/18/sweet-little-nothings/

Prequels, sequels, and retellings are a great way to get the creative juices flowing, but check out copyright restrictions before publishing (even on your blog). These restrictions just might lead you to reacquaint yourself with some of the classics. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/03/28/prequels-and-sequels-vs-retellings-and-the-wizard-of-oz

Mash works are popular. This is a great freewriting exercise to do with your writing group or a group of friends. For example, give yourself five minutes, three words Shakespeare coined, and write. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/27/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-26-theme-coined-by-shakespeare/

Who doesn’t love a shaggy God story? After all, was not Christ Himself, “out of this world?” https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/14/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-14-theme-honest-andor-dishonest/

If you suffer from brain drain writing in one way, try a hybrid form, such as a resume, syllabus, or a humorous “How-To” (or even a “How-To-Not”) article.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Blogging

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If you want time to write, you must prioritize your time. I only respond in-kind to the bloggers who comment on my blog, rather than those who simply like a post.

Backlinking to previous blog posts can garner new attention for older ones. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/10/04/15-blogging-prompts/

Poets read poetry, but most everyone will read a story. My personal essays tend to get the most views, despite their length. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/02/14/our-time/

Every author should have a blog, and here are 15 reasons why. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/07/06/my-500th-blog-post-why-blogging-rocks/

Food writing is popular. There are entire blogs dedicated to chocolate. If you’re including a recipe, don’t post pictures of every step, which can be frustrating when someone just wants the recipe and has to scroll a long way down to get to it. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/06/23/seven-reasons-why-brownies-beat-cake-and-even-cookies/

We’ve gone from cupcakes to cake pops. People like their information bite-sized. Top 10 (or 20) Lists will often capture your readers. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/12/29/15-life-lessons-learned-from-classic-movies/

Keep your author page updated. You can’t be 30-something forever. https://sarahleastories.com/about-the-author/

Not being a photographer or illustrator, I must get creative with my images. Never publish a blog post without an image. Avoiding stock photography has forced me to become more creative with visuals. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/12/24/sweet-little-nothings-now-comes-the-lent/

When all else fails, write about writing (review a book, a short story, etc.). At least you will be writing (not rewriting what they wrote).

Don’t publish more than 10% of what you write on your blog (unless your blog makes money). Don’t give it all away for free. I publish a fair amount of poetry and non-fiction on mine but absolutely no short stories.

 

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Social Media (For Writers)

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Have several channels through which you share your writing, be it your blog (anything goes here), Facebook page (I share writing tips and links to articles I like, including mine), Goodreads (for book reviews), LinkedIn (for business-type articles), and Instagram (poetry), but don’t have more social media accounts than you need or can keep up with.

It’s okay to share other people’s posts on your social media accounts, but NEVER reblog; you’re only promoting their work by doing this (commenting on a Medium article, however, is another story). Don’t give someone free real estate in your virtual space.

Simplification is multiplication. More than five minutes on one social network promoting your writing is excess currency better spent working on a piece to submit to a paying publication.

If you try to create brand-new content for every social media outlet, you are already spending too much time on social media.

Streamline your writing life. Get rid of social media accounts you don’t use, and clear out virtual clutter.

If you haven’t started a blog, do so. Think of it as an online portfolio. On days you don’t post, share an old post on your other social media sites. 

Sometimes, a blog post can double as a LinkedIn article. (I call that getting two for the price of one.) However, post the entire article separately on your LinkedIn account. No one likes clicking on your article and then being redirected to your blog. However, you can add links to related articles at the bottom. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/07/23/networking-for-introverts/

Before applying for a writing job, ensure your LinkedIn profile is updated (with a current headshot—not “you” ten years younger and twenty pounds lighter) and that your portfolio is diverse (I included a flyer, newspaper article, and press release, among others, in mine). Never include personal blog posts in your portfolio—only professionally published pieces.

Use links to other sites to enhance search engine optimization, and always let other writers know when you have linked them. They will appreciate the credit. 

Social media is a free way to promote your book and yourself as a brand. Seek to soft sell by entertaining, but do not send private messages to people you don’t know, asking them to like your Facebook page, follow them on YouTube, etc.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Writing Poetry

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Persona poems are great because you’re not working with a blank canvas but rather, a page out of an adult coloring book. You have the bones—you just have to flesh them out. While this is not strictly a persona poem (mine is written in the third-person; personas are written in first-), it still works. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/01/26/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-337-theme-persona-poem/

Start a reading journal (this is best for poetry). Unlike a book review, which analyzes the text for deeper meanings, a poetry reading journal is about what the text means to you. Here are some interesting poems to get you started. https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/p180-list.html

A pantoum poem is like a puzzle where the pieces sometimes repeat themselves in unexpected ways. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/19/pantoum-poem-an-exercise-in-repetition/

Think about messages that might be written on a Post-It note, and find a way to repurpose them as poetry. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/09/01/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-365-theme-year-in-the-life/

Write long, edit short. Poetry writing isn’t just for poets; it can help your short stories become more poetic.

For three years, I participated in the Writer’s Digest Poem-a-Day challenges in April and November (as well as the Wednesday prompts the other months). Daily, I posted the poem to my blog, which gave me time to build up my regular feature posts (Micropoetry Mondays and Fiction Fridays). It may seem stressful to produce a whole piece a day, but that piece can be a three-line stanza poem (which are more likely to get read in their entirety than a 100-line narrative)—the length of a tweet. http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/2017-april-pad-challenge-day-4.  

If you have an old shoebox full of letters or an inbox full of emails/private messages, you can write a “found poem.” https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/found-poem-poetic-form

List poems are one of my favorite forms. Come up with a common theme or thread (i.e., that awkward moment, what if, I love it when . . , etc.), and knit a narrative that resonates. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/04/02/poem-a-day-2016-writers-digest-challenge-1-theme-foolish/

An apostrophe poem is talking to something (tangible or intangible, something you like or dislike) about how it’s affected your life. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/03/29/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-390-theme-title-of-the-poem-is-a-music-genre/

If your story doesn’t tell one, it just might be a poem.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Submitting

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If you want to get published, know your audience (and publishers). When I entered The Saturday Evening Post’s “Great American Fiction Contest” (in which my story placed Honorable Mention), one of the guidelines was to “Think local. The Post has historically played a role in defining what it means to be an American. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future.” I implemented items emblematic of “Americana,” like community college, Post-It notes, Starbucks, Wheel of Fortune, and the concept of being a “Pollyanna.” Knowing how much The Sat Eve Post loves limericks (they hold a monthly limerick contest), I ended my story with one (the title of my piece was “The Post-It Poet,” after all). The day after I entered this contest was the day I started working on next year’s entry.

Before submitting your book manuscript to an agent or publishing house, build up your author platform. (Think of it as an online audition.) Here are some tips to get you started. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/10/08/12-ways-to-build-your-writers-platform/

Don’t use the “kitchen-sink theory,” meaning that you’ll send a publisher whatever just to see if it’ll stick. (It won’t.) Whenever I’ve gotten published, it’s been because I’ve not only tailored the piece to fit their needs, but I’ve gotten a feel for what they’re looking for by reading what they publish. You learn by reading and doing. 

Have a submission schedule for the publications you write for regularly. For example, on the fifteenth of every month, I submit a poem to a certain publication I adore—one I’ve been published in before. Also, keep track of what you write. I have a master list of pieces I’ve written and where I have submitted each. I’ve written so much poetry, I’ve had to categorize them into Shutterfly anthologies. 

Writing opportunities are everywhere: some consider publication as payment and others require payment simply to be read. Pick your poison. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/01/31/a-publishers-market-not-a-writers-market/

Identifying your target audience is important as it helps paint a picture for the publisher on how to market your novel. For mine, I’d say my target audience is college-educated women between the ages of 25–45 who have been a part of the Mormon experience or are familiar with the religion. It’s also recommended to list a few books (published by well-known authors) your target audience might like.

Let your piece marinate at least a week before submitting (if time constraints allow). Edit on hardcopy and read aloud. You will catch more mistakes that way because you force yourself to listen rather than scan.

Query letters must capture the attention of editors and publishers as many won’t read your manuscript without one. Just think of it as another writing challenge. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/01/17/query-letter-to-missouri-life-magazine/

Plan for writing contests a year in advance, so you never miss a deadline, and you’re always submitting quality work.

Trying to write for a publication or contest because it pays well or the entry is free when you have no interest in the topic, theme, or publication will take more time than writing two pieces you are passionate about for a publication you read. For example, there was a national women’s magazine on which the topic was, “What is the bravest thing you have ever done?” When I saw the previous years’ winning entries—serving in Afghanistan and other equally courageous things (i.e., larger than life achievements), I realized the bravest thing I’d ever done was get my wisdom teeth pulled without being put under, so I passed.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Journalism

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Creative writers have the potential to be great journalists, but the newspaper’s needs come first, and that usually means previewing/covering events or profiling people/businesses. People want to know what’s going on rather than your opinion on what’s going on.

Always ensure names are spelled correctly. Ask how to spell their name, even if it is Ann Smith/Anne Smyth or John Davis/Jon Davis. Typos are one thing, but it is a cardinal sin to misspell someone’s name.

Never conduct interviews through email. Do the legwork! Sometimes, in asking one question, the answer will lead to another question you didn’t already dream up. An interview is supposed to be a conversation, not a questionnaire. (That is asking them to do the work. Not cool.) Plus, you are cheating yourself out of honing a valuable skill. Anyone can send an email but interviewing well (feeling comfortable talking to strangers as well as making them feel comfortable enough to talk to you) takes a special soft skill. Phone interviews work but only if meeting them in person is an absolute impossibility.

Following an interview, before you look at your notes or listen to your audio, free-write everything you can remember before you write the story. This will help you get a feel for how you want your story to flow.

Don’t just copy and paste but rather, rewrite what you learn in a way you can understand. If you ever decide to tutor someone in English or go into teaching, this will help you explain more complicated concepts.

Regarding college journalism, it is better to review an event on campus versus a review of something (e.g., a community play) someone else is already reviewing. The purpose of the campus newspaper is to get as many student names and faces in it as possible.

As a freelance reporter, I have learned it is just as important to have questions ready as it is to know when to let them keep talking; often, they will answer more than one of those questions. Your subject will not always stick to the script. This can help you become a better listener, for you’re not just thinking about what you’re going to ask next, but you’re focusing on what they are saying at that moment.

Caption photos (or at least compile the information) the same day you take the photos. Remember, the information you use for the captions doesn’t have to be pulled from the article, which makes captions a great way to use information you couldn’t fit into the article. A photo captures the moment; a caption adds context to that moment.

If you like current events, hard news articles are for you. If you like history, feature stories are for you. Both have their place in journalism. I’m always a week late and several dollars short, so the story behind the story is my cup of coffee.

It is said that a newspaper story lasts for a day, but a short story lasts long after the author has passed away. Here are two pieces that were originally published in a newspaper and have stood the test of Father Time.   https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2019/12/in-a-word-eight-er-nine-tiny-reindeer/ and https://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia/.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Wordplay

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Play-on words are as fun to read as they are challenging to write: https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/02/writers-digest-poem-a-day-challenge/

Pick a noun and write every word you can think of associated with it. This exercise will sharpen your ability to play with play-on words. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/05/09/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-435-reserved/

I took a list of root operations (i.e., resection, extirpation, fragmentation, etc.) I learned from my medical coding classes and creating a series of poems that implement one of those processes and newspaper jargon. The results are fun and surprising. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/07/23/something-for-everyone-resecting-at-the-sunday-breakfast-table/

When I’m stuck, I come up with a list of opposites and how I can link them. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/07/micropoetry-monday-opposites/

Writing about our crazy language can be fun. Pick some words that vex you and explain why they do. For me, extraordinary would seem to mean its opposite—extra ordinary.

Know your craft, but play around with words. Have fun with language. (Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll did, among others.) You can still be literary without having to be literal. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/03/25/fun-with-words-lists-are-fun/

Noodling around with words germane to a certain subject be it math (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/10/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-10-theme-going-somewhere/) or English (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/13/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-13-theme-city/) can be a fun way to use old words in a new way or even learn new words, as every vocation or discipline has its vocabulary.

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/05/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-4-theme-whosoever-blank/

Dictionary.com has a Word of the Day, but sometimes those words, although fun to know, you will probably never use, as they are archaic (and would only come in handy if you are writing about that particular time and place). If you’re seeking more avant-garde terminology, try Urban Dictionary. Even if a word doesn’t have a place in your speaking, it might have a place in your writing. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/04/25/poem-a-day-april-2018-writers-digest-challenge-25-theme-intriguing-seldom-used-word/

Take a bunch of related words and see what you can cook up. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/04/18/poem-a-day-april-2018-writers-digest-challenge-18-theme-temptation/